Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sexism, Sexuality, and the DC Relauch

I've got a fairly comprehensive look at the sexual issues in last week's DC relaunch offerings up on Sequart. It's titled "Sexism, Sexuality, and the DC Relaunch," and it looks at Catwoman, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Wonder Woman, and Supergirl.

It was very hard to write, because I took great pains to be tough but even-handed.

Friday, September 16, 2011

This Week on Sequart

Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which analyzes and promotes comics as a legitimate form of art, offers daily content on its website. Here's what's been going on there this week.

On Monday, I concluded my look at the French masterpiece The Walls of Samaris.

On Tuesday, David Balan discussed Scott McCloud's The Right Number.

On Wednesday, Cody Walker offered the brilliantly-titled "Whatever Happened to the Big Red Cheese?", about Captain Marvel.

On Thursday, Gene Phillips looked at Grant Morrison, Chris Ware, and comics culture.

Today, Kevin Thurman looked at Charles Burns's Black Hole and what its depiction of sexuality.

I do hope you'll read them all, not only my own contributions to the site, because they're all well worth the time. Thank you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Walls of Samaris on Sequart

Over on Sequart, the final part of my look at The Walls of Samaris went up today.

If you're not familiar with the book, this is a masterpiece of a French comic. It's the first volume in The Obscure Cities, a series of graphic novels of remarkable merit. Illustrated by François Schuiten with architectural precision, it's beautiful to behold. And writer Benoît Peeters adds philosophical depth, making this a perfect blend of philosophical depth and sheer beauty. It's truly a loss for American comics that the series isn't available in English translation.

But never fear, I'm here to translate it for you -- and to walk you through the series, its themes, and its genius. If you're a fan of the comics medium, you need to check it out.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Keeping the World Strange Hits Comics Shops This Wednesday

Sequart has announced that it's book on Planetary, Keeping the World Strange, will be in comic book shops this Wednesday. Ask for a copy and tell them you're a fan of Sequart. Pretty please?


Corrections Department, with Thanks to David Uzumeri

I just want to give a quick shout out to David Uzumeri, who was awesome enough to point out an error in my Justice League International #1 review.

I misidentified a speaker as Booster Gold, when it was really a protester doing the talking. I think the blond hair was what did it, although Booster obviously has shades on, so I just wasn't thinking.

To make matters worse, I proceeded to be really snarky about the implications of my misreading. Which I thought was funny, but which really made me look like an ass when it was based on a sloppy misapprehension.

I've changed the review as a result. Not only did I alter the appropriate section (citing David), but I tweaked the whole thing, toning it down a bit. The mistake only changed my interpretation of a single scene, and my thesis remains the same. But I thought these mods were only right, after the reviewer had been exposed for basing his negative impression, at least in some small part, on a fundamental misreading. Don't worry: the integrity of the piece is secure, although I did tone down the invective just a bit.

On a more important note, this is exactly what any serious writer fears. Especially when delivering a scathing review, a responsibility one shouldn't take lightly.

But as much as the fear that one has made an error should haunt a writer, what's more scary is the idea that people -- possibly hundreds of people -- would catch the error and not point it out.

After all, it's not easy or comfortable to do so. No one likes to be told he or she is wrong. But people also don't like having to be the bearer of this particular bad news, especially when it's human nature to be defensive about one's own writing. It's far easier to just make a mental note that the writer's an idiot and go about your day. Which the writer could hardly blame you for doing, even though the result is that a mistake persists, deluding some readers and convincing others that the writer's an idiot.

So kudos to David Uzumeri, who's done me a great service. And please, if any of you spot similar mistakes in my writing or in that of anyone else, don't hesitate the point them out. It does help to do so diplomatically, as David did. But only a writer who really is an idiot will reply with anything but thanks.

Corrections are, unfortunately, part of the game. And if we are going to take comics seriously, we have to incorporate a correction-friendly culture into our writing about comics.

David Uzumeri did participate in a roundtable review of all 13 DC #1s offered this week, over at ComicsAlliance (a site I recommend). It's well worth your time, and I hope you'll check it out.

Friday, September 9, 2011

This Week on Sequart

Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which analyzes and promotes comics as a legitimate form of art, offers daily content on its website. Here's what's been going on there this week.

On Sunday, director Robert Emmons updated us on Sequart's documentary film Diagram for Delinquents: Fredric Wertham and the Evolution of Comic Books.

On Monday, I offered my "Hollow Spectacle (or How Super-Hero Comics Warped My Logic Circuit)," which followed up on my Justice League #1 review by using one scene from that comic to illustrate how acclimation to super-hero cliches can warp our understanding of logical narrative.

On Tuesday, Daniel N. Gullotta found correlations between Spider Jerusalem and Friedrich Nietzsche.

On Wednesday, Cody Walker continued his look at Mark Millar's Ultimates, examining how Ultimate Avengers 2 (a.k.a. Ultimate Avengers #7-12) went off the rails.

On Thursday, Tim Bavlnka looked at the history of Beta Ray Bill.

Today, I examined how Grant Morrison's Action Comics #1 succeeds where Justice League #1 fails.

Then later today, I offered a "Justice League International #1 Review."

I do hope you'll read them all, not only my own contributions to the site, because they're all well worth the time. Thank you!

Justice League International #1

I've got a review of Justice League International #1 up on Sequart.

It's not positive.

And yeah, that's three posts this week. All substantial, several thousand words in length.

Help me.

Special Friday Article on Sequart Addressing Action Comics

In addition to my usual Monday article on Sequart, I occasionally offer additional pieces during the week, such as my review of Justice League #1 last week.

It praises Action Comics #1, but it also draws careful distinctions between how that issue works and how Justice League #1 fails. In some cases, the superficial parallels are quite remarkable, although the tone and effectiveness are starkly different.

I would feel remiss if I didn't cover Action Comics #1, because I really don't want to be the curmudgeon who only bashes super-hero comics like I have Justice League #1. Nor the guy who only lays into the DC relaunch. I'm not that guy, really. Honest. And so I think it's important to praise where praise is due. But moreover, given the strong parallels between the two issues, talking about Action Comics #1 allows me to use a positive example, juxtaposed against some of the mistakes made with Justice League #1.

Check it out, please. Then tweet it if you like it. Tweet it twice if you hate it. I need readers.

More DCnU Quick Reviews

Was anyone even trying with Batgirl #1? Wasn't the whole point of making Barbara Gordon Batgirl again to return to her classic, smiling stories? Instead, despite the bright, smiling Batgirl on the cover, what we get inside is a dark Batgirl struggling with personal demons and fighting vicious murders. None of which is done in any unique way whatsoever. It's not bad but... it's not Barbara Gordon. I mean, there's zero reason why any of this had to involve Barbara Gordon at all, except that DC apparently wanted to list that under "alter ego" on a Batgirl information sheet.

Well, that's not entirely true. There's a flashback to The Killing Joke, which we knew would be kept in continuity. What we didn't know is how Barbara's legs would be restored. And guess what? We get no answer here. Instead, we get vague talk about it being a miracle, as if the characters don't even know.

Barbara does have a second flashback to her trauma, which plays into the plot. But if she spent three years in a wheelchair, as we're told she did in this continuity, why would that trauma be so fresh? Because she's adventuring again? It feels forced.

There's nothing bad here. Just shockingly, shockingly lackluster. Especially given the controversy DC engendered with its decision to restore Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. And given writer Gail Simone's promises to do Barbara Gordon justice. The internet is surely going to explode with every disability advocate and every Oracle fan screaming, "I told you so!"

See, when a company announces such a controversial move, it implicitly asks you, the consumer, to trust that company's wisdom. It assures you, its audience, that it has something in mind. Something worth the controversy. That's why it's so dangerous to publish lackluster material such as this. It's not just a lackluster issue of Batgirl. It's a loss for DC's credibility.

No one seems to have thought of this. No one seems to have noticed the controversy and thought, Gee, we'd better make sure that's a good issue. No one seems to have thought, Well, if we're bringing back Batgirl, we'd better tell a fun story that honors her past as Batgirl. You know, a story that you'd want to tell with Barbara Gordon, rather than a story that revolves around the same kind of dark murderers any super-hero could fight.


Justice League International #1 is a by-the-books first issue. If it were written in the late 1980s or early 1990s. And even then, it wouldn't be good.

There's some awful dialogue. Especially squabbling about nations, on this international team. There are characters who know the word "yes" but then inexplicably add, "Da!" As if to remind readers, "Yo, I'm stumbling through English, but don't forget I'm Russian!"

There's a totally inexplicable scene in which Batman accosts Guy Gardner to advocate for Booster Gold.

There are two kids who blow up the Hall of Justice using a water cooler. Okay, there are explosives in that water cooler. But I'd be surprised if they could do more than blow a hole in the wall, even if they were military grade. And these are kid protesters. The scene has the atmosphere of a prank. And it blows up the Hall of Justice. This is probably the stupidest thing I've seen since Ghost Rider beat Galactus.

Oh, and the big climax? A giant robot erupts from under the earth.


No, that's not a joke.

It's unbelievable that this could be deemed fit for publication in 2011.

OMAC #1 is certainly an offbeat title in the DCnU. It's essentially a retro title, a riff on classic Kirby comics. Think Godland. If you like that sort of stuff, this is for you. Otherwise, you'll be quickly lost. Points for being different.

I really wanted to like Hawk and Dove #1. I've confessed that I'm a fan of the original Liefeld mini-series. But this issue is a nightmare of stupid super-hero stuff. Sterling Gates wrote it, and it seems like he tried to write a 1990s Image Comic, knowing Liefeld would draw it. He should have instead looked further back to that original mini-series, which had normal, intelligible writing.

Crisis on Infinite Earths in the DCnU

So with the entire DC timeline compressed into five (or six) years, what about Crisis on Infinite Earths? Did that even happen?

Among the many other events in Crisis was the death of the original Dove. And guess what? It's referenced in the new Hawk and Dove #1.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some DCnU Reviews

Time to do some quick reviews of yesterday's new DC titles.

Action Comics #1 is excellent. It opens better than it closes: its second half is quite clever, but its first is positively brilliant. Best Superman since... well, All Star Superman.

Everyone knows Superman started as a vigilante, and Morrison even references this obliquely in the dialogue. I've argued for some time that returning to this kind of story, while it might upset the upstanding "truth, justice, and the American way" model of Superman that fans consider sacred, is the best way to make Superman stories vital again. And it's not like anyone can claim such a version wasn't authentic.

Morrison gets this, and he milks it. I don't know that he'll end the story with Superman still acting this way. But beyond this, the script is rather smart, filled with clever comments that enhance the story, rather than detract.

Animal Man #1 is surprisingly good. It returns Buddy Baker to the directionless suburbanite, struggling with his role as a super-hero and a parent. The last time this was done so well was Morrison's run, and that's a good sign.

It feels like a first issue, taking its time to set things up -- but unlike most of these first issues, this one doesn't suffer from its decompression. In other words, it feels more like a 1990s Vertigo comic than a decompressed comic from the 2000s. Not a lot happens, but what's here is carefully done by writer Jeff Lemire (outside of a couple too many ominous hints about the protagonist's family). Good stuff.

Swamp Thing #1 is a mixed bag. At its best, Scott Snyder is able to describe the point of view of plants in surprisingly new ways. Alec Holland mostly sleepwalks through the sparse plot, but when he gets to speak in response to Superman, what he says is actually pretty good. But beyond the decompressed plot, the comic has several collage-style pages that don't communicate much.

Stormwatch #1 was pretty disappointing. I like Paul Cornell's writing and I love these characters. To his credit, Cornell offers some new twists that I appreciated, such as implying that Stormwatch is much older (kind of like Torchwood) and Hawksmoor has been recruiting the spirits of the century for quite some time. But the main story, in which Stormwatch attempts to recruit Apollo, isn't compelling.

I'm honestly not sure what to make of Detective Comics #1. It feels like a tale from Batman's early years, in which he's hunted by the cops (except for Gordon), although we're given the Joker's death tallies for the last six years. I thought the new DC Universe is only five years old. So does this mean that the DC Universe is actually six years old and that Batman's still treated as illegal in the present day? So it would seem.

The art is certainly nice, but many scenes are homages to either The Dark Knight Returns or "Year One." Yet the story itself is rather different in tone and style, and I'm not sure if this level of homage is somehow meant to be ironic. Are these classic stories being retold in part? Is this supposed to feel like Batman's early years, although it's not? What is the point of this?

Then there's a shock ending that's straight out of Preacher.

There is a lot that's good here. Tony Daniel's really come into his own as artist, though not totally as writer.  But there are good passages in the writing too.

I guess the best reaction to this one is WTF. It's outside the entire system of ratings.

Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods

If you haven't seen the documentary film Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, you're probably living under a rock somewhere. I exec produced it, and it's directed by Patrick Meaney, who's also doing Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, both in collaboration with Sequart.

Don't believe me that it's great? Here's what the critics said:
"A bold, brave, and honest look at an artist whose life is worthy of this type of attention" - Aint it Cool News
"An instant classic" - Wired
"Don't miss it!" - G4's Attack of the Show
"The charismatic subject of this admiring portrait will intrigue the previously unconverted" - Variety
"A no-brainer if you're a Morrison fan, a Vertigo acolyte, or a comic book history buff" - io9 
"Drop dead gorgeous... An absorbing film." - Bleeding Cool
"Beautiful to look at...There's just this air of coolness that exudes for the duration" - The Examiner
"I couldn't take my eyes away...interesting and entertaining for experienced Morrison scholars and casual readers alike." - Comics Alliance
It's available for free on Hulu. If you want to buy a copy (please?), I recommend going through the Halo 8 Store, which cuts out the middlemen and offers the cheapest price, but it's also on Amazon and probably your favorite online store too.

You can also read more at GrantMorrisonMovie.com.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The DC Universe, Week One

Today is the first week of DC's 52 newly relaunched titles.

I'm not counting last week's disastrously-bad-yet-astoundingly-successful Justice League #1 as the relaunch's first week, since it was only one issue. But the mediocrity of that issue may actually work in DC's advantage, lowering expectations of this, the first full week of the relaunch.

And in this first batch, we have Grant Morrison's Action Comics, the highly-anticipated Batgirl, and the first look at how WildStorm and Vertigo characters will be handled as part of the new DC Universe. Big week, then.

Here's the full, annotated list of what today will bring:

  1. Action Comics #1. Written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Rags Morales, this is the one to watch. It takes place during Superman's early days, and Morrison's clearly taking a nod from the earliest Superman comics by making Superman a bit less of the lawful, by-the-books hero. It's slightly longer and $3.99, rather than the normal $2.99. This is the one everyone's chomping at the bit to check out. And that's nice to see, because that hasn't exactly been the case too often, at least in the past decade and a half, with Superman.
  2. Batgirl #1. The comic that launched a thousand, disability-related blog posts. We'll see, but with writer Gail Simone on board, it's unlikely to be bad. Certainly the most hotly-anticipated title this week, after Action Comics.
  3. Stormwatch #1. In which we find out how the WildStorm characters are going to be integrated into the new DC Universe. This one could wind up being really good or really bad, but in its favor, it's written by Paul Cornell, whose smart past work has earned critical respect. I'm a huge fan of The Authority, so I'll be watching this one carefully.
  4. Swamp Thing #1. Swamp Thing's been in the DC Universe again since Brightest Day, but nothing interesting has been done with him. Now, he's getting his own new series and a bright spotlight. But the standard here was set by Alan Moore's classic run in the 1980s, so we'll see how the new series fares. On the one hand, it could try to be more conventional DC fare, thinking this will avoid unfavorable Alan Moore comparisons. Bad idea, because it won't. Alternatively, this could try to be really smart, adapting classic stories and dark style to contemporary comics storytelling -- basically, Ultimate Swamp Thing. In which case, this probably will get good reviews. We'll see. I'm a huge Swamp Thing fan, so I'll be reading it carefully.
  5. Animal Man #1. Bringing Animal Man into the DC Universe was big news. But the character hasn't succeeded on his own since Grant Morrison's run in the early 1990s, so there isn't a great track record here. (I did like Jaime Delano's run, but it didn't sell.) We'll see whether writer Jeff Lemire can do better. This is more a curiosity than anything else, and its hope is to get good reviews and become a sleeper hit. Time will tell.
  6. Batwing #1. The black Batman offshoot introduced by Grant Morrison gets his own series. We'll see how long it lasts.
  7. Detective Comics #1. Expect this first look at the post-relaunch Batman to get some attention, despite the fact that DC has said the character will be insulated from any major changes. If you weren't into the run-of-the-mill Batman titles before the relaunch, you're probably not going to start caring now.
  8. Green Arrow #1. Green Arrow hasn't been hot since Kevin Smith wrote the title, but he has a fanbase. We'll see whether this title's long for the world.
  9. Hawk and Dove #1. No doubt one of the unlikeliest of titles, this one has art by Rob Liefeld, who illustrated the classic Hawk and Dove mini-series in the late 1980s. He's not the most popular guy these days, so I don't think anyone's expecting this title to last. I'll be watching it carefully, however, if only as a curiosity. If it succeeds, against all odds, expect a wave of '90s nostalgia to follow.
  10. Justice League International #1. This one focuses on a new mix based around the characters from the Giffen years. Because Justice League is starting with an extended flashback story, this is oddly the first look at any incarnation of the League in DC's new continuity, even though it's a spin-off title.
  11. Men of War #1. A war comic, loosely tied to DC's character Sgt. Rock. Based on the solicitation, I think most are merely wondering how awful this is going to be and how much it's going to glamorize war.
  12. OMAC #1. With Dan DiDio writing and Keith Giffen illustrating, this seems poised to be a sleeper hit. I'm totally there.
  13. Static Shock #1. I'm not sure who'll read this, beyond fans of the character.
And that's it. Call them DCnU #2-14.

Justice League #1 was the flashy but phenomenally dumb appetizer. Today is the first course.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Comic-Book Line-Wide Relaunch that's Not at DC

I'm enjoying the Ultimate Comics relaunch, although it's the line's second full relaunch in just under two years (the last was after Ultimatum). So far, only the first two of the four new Ultimate titles have come out, and they're surprisingly good. Not great, but good.

I have to admit that Marvel's Ultimate line continues to be a guilty pleasure. I've pretty much cured myself of any desire to follow either DC or Marvel, simply because I think I should or out of habit. But I've read every Ultimate comic ever published, the great and the awful. And I find it, at the very least, an exercise in line-building that's always interesting if only for this fact. The universe is still young, and even with Ultimatum, it hasn't yet built up nearly the convoluted and confused history of the regular Marvel Universe, nor DC's. It's also a universe that, while it's had rough spots, contains plenty of classic work, even if it's disproportionately weighted towards that universe's original launch.

Those of you who read Ultimate Fallout, which bridged the gap between the old Ultimate line and the relaunch, know that Jonathan Hickman's taking over the Ultimates, while Nick Spenser's taking over the X-Men, and Brian Michael Bendis is staying on Spider-Man. The addition of Hickman and Spenser has been read as Marvel turning over its Ultimate universe to a new generation of creators.

So far, only Hickman's two series have seen print: Ultimates Vol. 2 #1 (yes, that is its official title) and Ultimate Hawkeye #1, which begins a four-issue mini-series tying into the opening story arc in Ultimates.

How good are they? They're not instant classics, but they're solid entertainment. Hickman's intent on Ultimates Vol. 2 is to deconstruct the team by throwing everything at it, and that results in some chaos, because we have to understand -- and presumably care about -- all these events around the world. To Hickman's credit, they're not all super-villain related, which avoids the usual punch-'em-up solutions. True, we don't really care about Thor's drunken fight in Asgard (who could?), and some of the details are a bit confusing. But the point is obviously that the Ultimates are stretched thin, adding to Nick Fury's stress. Along the way, we get Tony Stark controlling Iron Man's armor from afar -- a nice touch that, while not unprecedented, does answer the question as to why he'd fly his armor himself, in a world in which unmanned drones are presumably old tech.

But the real saving grace here is Esad Ribic, who's art is really nice to look at and will almost certainly prove the best of the four new titles. That's appropriate, since it's a property launched by Bryan Hitch, so the standards are quite high in the art department.

Over in Ultimate Hawkeye, Hickman has the character dealing with one of the situations seen in Ultimates, and it's an interesting one. Essentially, a rogue state has developed its own super-soldier program, simultaneously neutralizing or lessening the West's super-soldiers. It's a clever plot, one that's informed by actual geopolitics. Yes, it echoes the first Authority storyline, with the idea of a rogue state controlling a legion of super-people. And yes, I still don't care about Hawkeye. But the issue's got enough going for it that it's an able addition to the new Ultimate line.

Are there storytelling problems? Sure. Ultimate Hawkeye in particular seems decompressed improperly, with several pages that deliver relatively little information. But we're used to that these days, and it's hard to blame a single comic for it (I didn't even hit Justice League #1 for it, in all my criticism). The Ultimates Vol. 2 could communicate what's happening better, since that's presumably pretty important to giving the reader the sense of a wordwide threat that's enough to bring Nick Fury to a standstill.

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 comes out on September 14th, then Ultimate X-Men Vol. 2 on the 21st. We'll see how those fare. The former has the advantage of featuring a new Spider-Man, who's part black and part Hispanic, as the Drudge Report and others in the media have pointed out. I have to say, as stunts go, I'd rather see one in which a top-flight creator like Bendis invents a new, diverse character than, say, killing Captain America. As for Spenser's X-Men, we'll have to wait and see.

No, I wouldn't recommend them to non-comics readers. But unlike Justice League #1, they weren't billed as a perfect starting point for new readers. And for fans like me, they're thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Justice League #1

My review of Justice League #1, on Thursday of last week, was pretty scathing. Matter of fact, it pretty much deconstructs the entire issue, proving that it suffers from a whole series of serious problems, from confusing artwork and bad dialogue to a plot hole so large that it renders the entire story illogical.

Today, I've followed that up with a look at how super-hero comics suffer from a love of hollow spectacle and how reading them has literally undermined our ability to detect illogical, nonsensical elements. Which I then go on to demonstrate.

There's been a lot of vociferous debate about all of this. And let me be clear: I want the DC relaunch to succeed, but I also want it to consist of high-quality work. I want the people hopefully coming to comics for the first time to see this high-quality work, not shoddy, poorly-edited nonsense that ought to scare them away from comics, if they're the kind of smart reader that we (should) most want to attract.

No, Justice League #1 isn't the worst comic ever. But it is fair game, because it's been publicized as the introduction to DC's revised universe, one friendly to new comics readers. But objectively, it's anything but.

The above review and article are both at Sequart.

In other Justice League #1 news, Bleeding Cool (one of the few comics website I read almost daily) has one of the dumbest reviews of the comic yet, in which the writer says about the issue's decompression, "As a literary technique, I found this most interesting."

New rule: if you can't identify cliched dialogue, massive plot holes, and shitty panel compositions, you don't get to use the phrase "literary technique."

Is this what comics criticism has come to?

Life, Post-TouchPad

I got an HP TouchPad about a week ago, and I can't imagine life without it.

True, you could say that it's just a glorified smartphone. And yes, it can cruise the web and use map programs, with a touch screen that lets you zoom in and out by sliding your fingers. But having the big screen size makes all the difference in the world, and the resolution is incredible. You haven't seen the internet until you've seen it like this.

But you can also sync to your Facebook, cloud storage account, and Google docs. All in one place. You can open PDFs, open and edit MS Word docs, and generally do just about anything. Use Flash on the web? No problem.

Oh, and it's also gloriously designed. As in iPhone sleek.

I'm a happy camper.